The Unshakable Pain
Ah lower back pain, the thing Disney, Cartoon Network and other popular children’s media outlets painted as an ailment that was exclusively for the old and decrepit.
Giving us the confidence to head out into the world with a carefree attitude thinly veiled in a misguided sense of invincibility ‘yeah, It’s been a long day lifting all those bags of soil at work and sure my back aches like hell, but I’m only 17, I can deadlift 200kg as normal – it’s not as if I’m gonna slip a disc, like one of those old fossils!’
Well here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say… F*ck you Disney! And the same goes for anyone else that gave me the impression that youth was in any way an advantage, you should have known I’d use that to prop up my massive ego and end up crippling myself for the latter end of my teenage years…
Now whilst most of you might have slightly less severe feelings towards Disney and tend to focus on the more positive and realistic impacts they had on our childhoods (believe it or not, most of the time I do too) if you are here you are likely suffering from some form of lower back pain, be it a herniated disc or whatever.
Well if that is the case, I genuinely and wholeheartedly feel for you as I have had first-hand experience with how much it disrupts your day-to-day life and moreover just how much of a pain in the arse it is to try and remedy.
With that being said, a friend at uni introduced me to 3 core exercises he had come across when reading a paper by Dr. McGill, and the 10 minutes I spent doing them did more for my lower back pain than anything else I had tried, in this post, I will share those exercises with you.
What is the ‘Mcgill Big 3’
Dr Stuart McGill is a professor of 30 years and clinical researcher into the areas of prehab and rehab for the prevention and curing of lower back pain respectively in an effort to aid in the recovery of athletes, and help them build a stable core to support the lower back and perpetuate a long and healthy career.
Much of his research pertains to how stabilization exercises can strengthen muscles to provide ample support for the trunk. In this research, he tested and found 3 exercises that could be used to treat and prevent lower back pain by strengthening anterior, posterior and lateral lumbar muscles without placing any load on the lumbar spine. These being the bird dog pose, commonly seen in yoga, the modified curl up, a unilateral variation of the hollow hold, and the side plank, a normal plank but… well on your side…
The effectiveness of these exercises as a means of relieving lower back pain has been compared to other clinical methods of treating back pain such as conventional physiotherapy  and conventional stretching/strengthening exercises . In both studies, the 3 exercises alone showed to provide greater improvement in pain and functional disability for patients with non-specific lower back pain and were just as effective as physiotherapy at increasing active back range of motion.
How should you do the McGill big 3?
I would recommend performing the exercises at least once a day, I found that doing the exercises when I woke up in the morning or before my gym workout was a great way to ensure that I consistently got them done every day.
They are a great way to warm up your stabilizing muscles and create a mind-muscle connection which is particularly important if you are about to do some big compound movements such as a deadlift or a squat – you should always be consciously activating your core or utilizing a brace when performing these complex heavy movements to protect your back!
All following exercises should be performed isometrically, meaning you get into the position, perform the movement, and then hold it for a set period of time before resting, and then doing it again. I would recommend starting by holding each position for 10 seconds and then taking a 10 seconds rest, and then repeating for a total of 10 repetitions, as these are unilateral exercises (meaning you train one side of the body at a time) you will then switch to the other side and do the same thing again. After you have completed 10 repetitions on both sides move on to the next exercise and repeat.
As you get stronger and the exercises become easier aim to increase the amount of time that you hold the isometric contraction.
The Modified Curl Up
The modified curl up is a safer alternative to the sit up that requires less mobilization of the lumbar spine and instead tones and isometrically strengthens the rectus and obliques abdominis muscles key in controlling pelvic motion.
To perform the modified curl up, lie on your back with both hands crossed on your chest, whilst straightening one leg and bending the other to plant your foot firmly on the ground.
Once in this position, raise your upper torso off of the ground slightly, engaging your core and squeezing you abdominal muscles tightly as if bracing to receive an elbow drop from The Big Show. Be sure to consciously lower any tension in the neck when performing this exercise and keep a neutral spine, it’s all very well curing your lower back pain but it’s not much use if you need to go pick up a neck brace straight after.
I’m sure that 99% of you are familiar with the side plank as it is a staple in any ab workout, it truly is the bread and butter of every standard routine to finish a session of high volume abs with this devastating core exercise.
For those of you that are not familiar, I will explain… Simply lay on your side supported by your elbow under your shoulder, and stretch out your legs so that the sides of your feet make contact with the ground and elevate your hips off of the floor, your body should draw a nice straight line between your shoulder and your ankles.
If you are having to compensate and push your hips above that line or they are falling down towards the ground, consider this your limit, rest and go again. If you are not able to hold the position for 10 seconds regress the exercise and bend your legs so your knees are in contact with the ground instead of your feet.
The Bird Dog is a yoga pose that is accomplished by positioning yourself on all fours in a tabletop structure, keep your spine and head in a neutral position and then proceed to balance on one opposing arm and leg, stretching the other arm and leg out in a straight line. Keep tension throughout your posterior chain to provide yourself with balance and stability.
For a detailed visual explanation of each exercise and regressions you can do if any or all of them are currently too difficult for you, I recommend watching this video by FHP Health Tips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fj_RvcrMd8w
Remember, the key to making these exercises is consistency and gradual increase in intensity. Start at a place that is comfortable for you, do not push yourself too hard, but make sure you are returning back to it as frequently as your body allows, try to make adherence to the rehab workout part of your daily routine.
I hope you all find as much success with these exercises as I did, thanks for reading!
Disclaimer: As always these exercises are founded in my personal experience and the literature I have read. However, if you are experiencing severe back pain or discomfort I would 100% recommend going to see a doctor before implementing any exercises you read on the internet from sources who are not qualified medical practitioners.
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